Saturday, August 13, 2011

Israeli history: The true mystery of Daud Abu Yusuf, the Jewish Bedouin

Ami Isseroff Joe Hochstien

Dedicated to the memory of Ami Isseroff z”l and Joe Hochstien z”l (right to left)

The first teacher
In the modern history of the Jewish people Daud Abu Yusef is referred as ‘the miraculous rider from the desert.’ But in my opinion a more fitting title will be ‘the first teacher’. Since he was the first to teach the Jewish pioneers in the land of Israel how to protect themselves and their community. His students were the founders of what is now the modern city of Petach Tikvah. The very first pioneers who came to the malaria infested swamps that covered much of the arable land in the land of Israel. Like them he wanted to change the fate of the Jewish people for the better. And gladly joined the members of the Jerusalemite Association “Petach Tikvah,” which means opening of hope in Hebrew.

Coat of arms of the city of Petakh Tikvah
Coat of arms of the city of Petach Tikvah

Opening of Hope
Just east of Tel Aviv, the modern city of Petach Tikvah holds proudly the title of the first Zionist community in the land of Israel. It is a title disputed by the people of the city of Rosh Pinah near Safed in the Galilee, but this dispute will not be sorted out here. The founding fathers of Petach Tikvah included David Gutmann, Yehoshua Stampfer, Eliezer Rab, Natan Greengrant, Zerakh Baranet, and the leader of the group, Yoel Moshe Solomon.
In July 8 1878 they bought for 1,100 Napoleons 3,400 dunam from a Christian trader from Jaffa by the name of Salim Caser and named it after their association. Located near the origins of the Yarkon, (a river in the eyes of the locals, and a stream in the eyes of passing tourists), the abundance of water made the place look promising but looks can be deceiving. Their intention was to find a way to live as farmers. But the challenges they were facing were daunting. The biggest threat was malaria. It decimated the Arab population along the marshlands and had no mercy on the Jewish pioneers. Finding the right crops was another critical challenge since that was the financial justification of their enterprise. 

Founder of Petakh Tikvah, Yoel Moshe Salomon
 Founder of Petach Tikvah, Yoel Moshe Salomon

The security challenge
There was also the problem of security. These were the last decades of the Ottoman Empire. As it decayed, lawlessness and destitution spread along its diminishing provinces. And the land of Israel was no exception. The Arab Israeli conflict, as we know it today, of Jews vs. Arabs, did not exist at the time. Then it was the destitute vs. the poor. Those with nothing but an empty belly vs. those with very little. And those with very little, like the people of Petach Tikvah, had to watch tirelessly over the little they had. Guarding from thieves, robbers and trespassers. The trespassers came from nearby villages and wandering Bedouin tribes. They often harvested the fields of Petach Tikva and brought their cattle there to graze. The Bedouin tribes were the greater potential threat. Since quite often they were the real law of the land. Picking a fight with one of them was asking for trouble. Therefore a good guard had to be a good diplomat who knew the ways of the Arabs and the Bedouins.

First of the Jewish guards, Yehoshua Stampfer

For this complex task of security three men volunteered. Yehoshua Stampfer (1852-1908), Yaacov Ben Mimon Zarmati (1838-1928), and Yehuda Rab (1858-1948). The first is best described as the problems solver of the association. Enthusiastic, committed and charismatic, his been taking head on many of the setbacks that came their way. From recruiting backers and members, to farming, and protecting their small newborn community. The second was a 40 years old Moroccan Jew, native of Jaffa. Yaacov Ben Mimon Zarmati was a merchant who knew much of the land around them, from Sinai to northern Syria. He knew the ways of the Arabs and the Bedouins, and in his travels went to the lands of the most hostile of tribes. He knew no fear and no illness. The 21 years old Yehuda Rab, was the son of Eliezer Rab and cousin of Yehoshua Stampfer. Although young, he had behind him experience equal to a lifetime. Married for the second time, he already run two businesses before coming to Petach Tikvah. He run a mill in Jerusalem and before that an estate in his country of birth, Hungary. There he also learned the use of personal weapons from an elderly friend of the family, a veteran of the failed Hungarian revolt of 1848 and of the American Civil War. Rebellious and unruly, yet loyal, Yehuda preferred the company of Arabs to that of the Yeshiva life in Jerusalem. Because of that he was called ‘Yehuda Arab.’
Each of them had some knowledge and experience to offer. But it was not enough. Very quickly these three remarkable men were overwhelmed by the security problems. They needed a more professional help. And they got it, unexpectedly, in a perfect timing, the kind of which history isn’t known to offer.

First of the Jewish guards, Yaacov Ben Mimon Zarmati
First of the Jewish guards, Yaacov Ben Mimon Zarmati, age 90

One heck of a coincident
Daud Abu Yusuf did not plan to be in the land of Israel in the winter of 1879. As a devout Jew he undoubtedly wanted to. Maybe he even made a few plans. But if he did they never materialized. In 1879, year 5,639 of the Jewish calendar, a thief stole his precious white mere somewhere in Arabia. And Daud chased him all the way to Damascus. Since Jerusalem is nearby, he decided to make pilgrimage. On his way back, at the village of Faga, east of Petach Tikvah, he heard of Jews trying to make a living as farmers. Curious, he went to have a look. But all he saw there were a bunch of Europeans. Disappointed he immediately left. For Yehuda Rab, who welcomed him there, this was also confusing. He saw a strange looking Bedouin coming from the east on a tall white mere, the kind Yehuda never saw before. According to the local customs he greeted him and invited him for a cup of coffee. But instead of accepting, the rider grunted and left, after replying in a few words in an Arabian dialect uncommon to this region. Returning from the fields the next morning Yehuda was surprise to see the stranger coming from the same direction. His surprise grew several times over when the stranger announced “Ana Israili,” followed by, “Shma Israel adony Eloheinu Adony echad.
No one expected to meet a Jewish Bedouin. But there he was, a Hebrew speaking Bedouin with Talit and Tefilin among his few belongings. Yehuda’s immediate thoughts were of the Jews of Khaybar. They were a mysterious tribe of Jewish nomads from the Arabian Peninsula. At the time a source of many legends and rumors, but of no actual encounters. As they introduced each other Daud dismissed that possibility. His name was Da-vid, but the Arabs called him Daud Abu Yusuf, after his 20 years old son, who was then with his mother in Baghdad. Daud came from a group of Jewish families in Baghdad that spend the greater part of each year among the Bedouins in the desert, trading with them in camel wool. Only he went even farther, and made the desert his home. In that conversation Daud also dismissed the possibility that the Jews of Khaybar existed. He recalled that he was hired once as a guide by a British expedition that wanted to find this tribe. They went across the Arabian Peninsula as far as Yemen, were they met Yemenite Jews. But saw no evidence of the Jews of Khaybar.

First of the Jewish guards and teacher, Yehuda Rab
First of the Jewish guards and teacher, Yehuda Rab

The first lesson
Hearing of their problems and difficulties he immediately offered his experience, his first advice, no rifles. That night he took Yehuda outside to set a campfire. Yehuda thought this would immediately attract hostile fire. Daud was counting on that. They waited on their horses some distance away in the dark. And when someone began shooting at their campfire they did nothing. The shooters revealed their location by firing and when they reloaded Daud and Yehuda charged at them from behind, scaring the living daylights out of them. Simple and effective, Daud’s plan gave Yehuda his first night of sleep in a long time. After that night Daud decided not to return to his wife and son in Baghdad but instead to spend a year teaching the people of Petach Tikvah everything he knows. Especially to Yehuda Rab who carried the greater brunt of guarding.

Philosophy and legacy
His main tool was diplomacy. Gaining the respect of the surrounding villagers and Bedouin tribes, through firmness and hospitality. Stand your ground but always give your adversary the highest respect. By winning every confrontation on one hand, and they were numerous, and honoring his neighbors with hospitality Daud’s fame spread throughout the land. And many Arabs regarded him as a sheikh. He knew that smart diplomacy can avoid confrontations and war, therefore he honored the Arab custom of hospitality by accepting all their invitations and inviting their leaders to Petach Tikavh, where they were treated as kings. Once he refused to take part in a contest of skills in order not to humiliate their host, the head of the powerful Abu Kishek tribe.
When it comes to surviving an actual confrontation Daud’s philosophy had just two rules. Rules that required a cool head at all times.
Always be quicker than your foe, but no matter what you do, don’t ever kill unless this is an extremely severe danger. – This is not a fantasiya!” “There is no point,” he reasoned, “to start an endless blood feud.” Fantasiya were local festivities were weapons were fired into the air just for the fun of it. For experienced men like Daud Abu Yusuf war is something they engage in out of necessity and not for the fun of it. He knew and taught that a battle avoided is a battle won.
This first rule is a wisdom that echoed across the history of Jewish self-defense in the land of Israel. Mendel Portugali, 1888 – 1917, one of the founders of “Hashomer,” the predecessor of the “Haganah” instructed, “ You do not seek an encounter with a thief, you chase him off, and only when you have no choice do you shoot. After all, he is "out to steal a sack of almonds, not to murder you, so don’t murder him, drive him off. Don’t sleep at night. If you hear footsteps, fire into the distance. If you feel that he is not far from you, and you can fire without fear that he may attack you, fire into the distance. Only if your life is in danger – fire.
And from later years, Yigal Alon, 1918 – 1980, recalled an incident with thieves in his family fields, when he was only 13 years old. In that incident he saw his father confronts the thieves and chases them away, without killing them, even though he had the opportunity to do so. His father’s explanation echoed the wisdom of Daud Abu Yussef and the empathy of Mendel Portugaly: “A shot can end up in death. The death of an Arab opens a blood feud that can last for decades. We live here with them and any conflict that can be resolved with hands and sticks has to end without the use of a weapon. Use it only when there is a real danger to your life.” Yigal Alon became a leading figure in the establishment of the state of Israel and its armed forces. Where he, and others like him raised generations of soldiers, commanders and military leaders.
Daud Abu Yussef second rule is best described as “Always prefer the night over the company of a campfire.” Knowing your surrounding in the dark without the use of a light source is the skill of the commando, the tracker, and the native fighter. A skill a bunch of foreign intruders are not supposed to have. Israeli historians may dispute the idea that Daud Abu Yusuf gave the Israeli side the skills of army trackers – ‘Gashashim’ in Hebrew. But the fact of the matter is that Jews with this skill were present in land of Israel from the very beginning of pioneering Zionism and Daud Abu Yusuf was there to teach.

Who was he?
Daud spent only one year in the company of the people of Petach Tikvah, from the Passover of 1879 to the Passover of 1880. There is only one source about that year, his friend and student, Yehud Rab. From him we have a few clues about his life before he came to Petach Tikvah.
40 years of age, short and not so good-looking, his face carried the scares of an illness that stroke him some years before, probably Chicken Pox. His most recognized feature was the rababa, a single string musical instrument common among the Bedouins. With it he sang Bedouin songs from the desert’s heartland and Jewish prayers. He also liked to play the ud, a well-known guitar like Arab musical instrument.
True to his teachings, he carried no firearms. He had a lance in his right arm and a frightening Damascus Sword in a sheath on his left thigh. When asked why this seemingly risky choice, he explained that a rifle has no honor. “Even a woman can kill with it the greatest of heroes”. Was he a chauvinist? Or was this a better explanation to give to the kind of world he lived in? His one-year stay in Petach Tikvah Suggests the later. Once a massive confrontation between the men of Petach Tikvah and the men of a nearby village was about to take place. Seeing this face-off the women of Petach Tikvah took the initiative, rushed to the field and lay down between the two sides. Daud was as surprised as the rest of the men, from both sides. But there is no indication he was bothered by this “unwomanly” behavior. Along with everybody else he was glad the fight was aborted.
Daud gave a year of his life to Zionism, but his life was his wife and son in Baghdad. This we know since he never stopped talking about them, especially his wife. On the eve of his departure he met Rabbi Akiva Yosef Schlesinger, a senior rabbinic personality from Jerusalem. He was the only leading rabbi to support the Petach Tikvah initiative, and that against strong and sometime near violent opposition from the rabbinic establishment in Jerusalem. Recognizing Daud’s importance Schlesinger offered him a special permit to marry a second wife from the land of Israel, should his wife in Baghdad demands his return. Politely and firmly Daud refused. It is quite possible that Daud had a woman for a boss.
Daud was a man of contradictions in more ways than one. Once he saw a Turkish unit taking government cattle to the fields of Petach Tikvah. Furious he charged at them and slapped the Turkish lieutenant on the chick, and quickly rode away. Smart move giving the troubles this act nearly put him into. Like most of the men in that era he liked to hunt. And was excited to see a wild boar. Against his friend’s advice he decided to hunt it and threw his lance at him. But the wild beast was only hurt, and as always in such cases attacked him and his mere. His mere was nearly gutted before Daud was able to slash the boar’s neck with his sword.
In my opinion these stories betray an earlier layer of personality, one that is more adventures and impulsive. And that raises the highly likely possibility that he too had a mentor once, an unknown teacher. From him learned survival skills that may have conflicted with his adventures nature.

Daud Abu Yusef, the Jewish Bedouin
Daud Abu Yusuf, a sketch made by Yehuda Rab in 1944. Source, 'The First Furrow’

A fading memory
Daud’s life from before he came to Petach Tikvah is a mystery; all we have is second-guessing based on a handful of clues. But what happened to him afterwards is a complete blank. Even though most Baghdadi Jews and their descendants live today in Israel, no one came forwards claiming to be his descendant. And the British expedition he said to have guided across Arabia hasn’t been identified. As a result the mystery of Daud Abu Yusuf got bigger. And as always when history and mystery meet, legends and folktales emerge.
When Daud left his image got split into two different persons, the historic one and the legendary one. The historic one, of the lone and remarkable Baghdadi Jew that lived as a Bedouin, is the one described here. It was known only to Yehuda Rab and to his family; and to whoever read his memoirs. They were written by his son Benyamin Ben Ezer in 1930,  and published in 1956 under the Hebrew title ‘Hatelem Harishon,’ ‘The First Furrow.’ In 1922 the Rab family Hebraized their name to Ben Ezer, after Yehuda’s father, Eliezer.
The legendary image described Daud as the head of a mysterious and powerful tribe of Jewish Bedouins hidden somewhere in the vastness of Arabia. This is how the general public in Israel knew him, from before there was an Israel, probably from the very beginning of the 20th century. At the time of Daud’s stay in Petach Tikvah Yehuda was not the only one who mistaken Daud for a member of the Jews of Khaybar. But only he was there he to hear Daud’s own story. The rest of the people saw someone who was clearly a Jew and clearly a Bedouin. Therefore it was logical for them to assume that he came from a Jewish Bedouin tribe. And the people of that era knew of only one such tribe, the mysterious Jews of Khaybar. The great deeds Daud made during that year convinced many that he was the head of that tribe.

While the historic image of Daud Abu Yusuf remain hidden among the old books in public libraries, the mistaken one kept growing in the collective imagination. In Israel’s earlier decades children & youth literature writers turned the Khaybar version into an action figure hero, an integral property of Israel’s world of fiction and fantasy. It may have seemed like a safe place to preserve a memory, albeit distorted one, but it wasn’t. With an image of a character in children & youth literature Daud was simply not in the radar of most early Israeli historians and researchers. This kept his memory only in the fiction world of Israel. But the fiction world everywhere is never a stable one. There, characters and stories are subject to changing trends and fashions. And in the Israeli culture the leading trendsetters were in the United States of America. This is a fact of life that goes back to the very beginning of Modern Hebrew speaking lives in the Land of Israel. And in the 1980’s, when the influx of imagery from the United States to Israel turned into a flood, Daud did not have a chance.

By 1988 it was probably too late. Then, journalist and historian Ehud Ben Ezer (1936-), Grandson of Yehuda Rab and son of Benyamin Ben Ezer, Republished his grandfather’s memoirs. With it he published a children & youth story recounting the same events. The two books meant to counter the misinformation in the public’s mind, but there is no evidence that major interest arose. Thus the memory of Daud abu Yusuf, real and fiction, faded to near obscurity.

But ultimately, the main reason was Israel herself. The hi-tech over urbanized Israel of the 21st century is a sharp contrast to the impoverished desolated and thinly populated land Daud and Yehuda knew in 1880. And today many in Israel and outside of Israel will find it difficult to believe that the origins of the IDF, one of the most technologically sophisticated armies in the world, goes back to four Jews on horse backs carrying as their main weapons wooden quarterstaffs known in Arabic as naboots.

Ehud Ben Ezer
Ehud Ben Ezer, the only authority in the whole world on Daud Abu Yusuf


  1. Fascinating story. It reminds me of Hillel Halkin's book, A Strange Death, which I just read this summer, about the early days of Zichron Yaakov.

  2. As an admirer of Ami's work, and an admirer of Baghdadi history, I think this is an important essay you wrote, good quality. I was also happy to be reminded of Dr. Isseroff today, his intelligence. -- Lurene Gisee

  3. A pity this fascinating story is written in pidgin English.

  4. Thank you for your candor Mrs. Bacon. English is not my first language and I’m constantly trying to improve it. I hope you were still able to enjoy this story.

  5. This is a pretty cool story. Your English is pretty good, considering it's your second language. I'd suggest some improvements but you probably don't want a list of corrections in the comments section.
    I'm going to bookmark this site because it is interesting and appears to be a source of facts that can be useful when informing people about the true situation in the Middle East.

  6. Thank you Mjazz for your kind words. The main purpose of my blog is to make it a source of true facts about the ME. But it is also important to increase the appeal of this blog by improving my English.
    If you have any questions about the situations in this region, history, etc. my email for this purpose is

  7. Dear DD
    Link to this fascinating story at Point of No Return
    Well done.

  8. I’m glad you liked it and thank you for publishing. But the mystery remains.

  9. Great story, Dvar Dea! It adds a layer of depth to my understanding of Israel.

  10. jews will die in israel